What a Marshmallow Can Tell You About Your Future

Photo by Ryan Magsino on Unsplash

You know better than to eat that donut, hit the snooze alarm, have that ill-advised sex, or get that hit of cocaine. There will be the devil to pay; but it feels so good, you’re willing to pay it. It’s a matter of instant gratification.

Why does instant gratification have such a hold on you? The answer may lie within the cottony, cushiony sweetness of a simple marshmallow.

Take a four-year-old in a room with a table. Place a single marshmallow on the table. The child’s mouth will water, and his eyes will widen. “May I have it, please?” the child will ask; at least, if he’s polite.

“You may have it,” you say. “But, before you do, you should know that I’m about to leave the room to get another marshmallow. If this one’s still on the table when I get back, you can have two; but, if you eat it before I get back, then that marshmallow will be the only one you can have.”

The child’s eyes will widen some more. He’ll swallow hard. You leave. Will the marshmallow still be there when you return?

About half the time it will, and half the time it won’t.

It’s all about instant gratification. The ones who eat the marshmallow are unable to restrain themselves for even a few minutes, even though they could have had two.

If you really want to learn something interesting, do this with a number of children, follow them for the rest of their lives, and see what becomes of them. The ones that didn’t eat the marshmallow will tend to do better all the way around. They’ll get more education, make more money, keep healthier relationships, have happier kids, fewer legal problems, less addiction, and live longer in better shape. All of this can be predicted by whether a kid eats a single marshmallow at the tender age of four.

This research, called the Stanford marshmallow experiment by Walter Mischel, is often cited to prove the value of sacrificing short term desires for the sake of meaningful long-term gains. It shouldn’t be news to hear that people who are willing to do so, do better at many things. If you were the kind of kid who would have eaten the marshmallow, if you’re still eating the marshmallows, and you’re not doing well, that may be why.

But here’s one more thing you can do in your study. Before you offer the kid the marshmallow, look at the kind of family he or she has. How reliable and trustworthy are the kid’s parents? Do they say they love him, but then abuse him? Do they keep their word? Will anyone protect the kid from predatory older siblings? Are the parents even around?

I know what’s going to happen. The quality of the kid’s family will predict whether he’ll eat the marshmallow. Kids who came from reliable, compassionate, trustworthy parents will be more likely to believe a stranger when he says they’ll get a second marshmallow. They’ll wait and be rewarded, like they knew they’d be. The ones who don’t have good-enough parents will gobble the treat down the first chance they get because they’ve learned not to depend on promises.

Now, maybe the behavior of the kids who go for instant gratification doesn’t appear as irrational anymore. They’re showing good sense, even though they don’t make out as well as those who wait and invest. If you were the kind of kid who had a parent like that, who could not be believed, then maybe it’s understandable that you’re not big on waiting for uncertain returns. You go for the immediate satisfaction because you can never count on things turning out the way they’re supposed to.

There’s only one problem. So, your Dad was full of hot air or your Mom frequently went back on her word; that doesn’t mean the rest of the world will. If you always eat the first marshmallow, you’re less likely to give it a chance you’ll get the second. You’ll never learn that being fit is better than that donut, getting up in the morning makes you happier than oversleeping, a healthy relationship is more pleasurable than a dangerous one, and a hit of cocaine is not necessary to make you happy. You’ll never discover that refined pleasures are better than primitive ones if you always go for instant gratification.

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